Aliyah Weinstein is an alumna of Rutgers University and is currently a first-year PhD student in immunology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her scientific interests include cancer immunology and immunotherapy. Outside of science, she speaks French, volunteers with a Pittsburgh-based youth writing initiative, and enjoys baking. She writes about life as a grad student on her blog, Isn’t That Grad!
You are invited to travel back in time and ask anyone a question. Who would it be and why?
Grandpa, what was it like to be in the war? The second-to-last week of March, 2007, was when the question first crossed my mind.
I was sixteen then, a junior in high school, studying twentieth century U.S. history. We’d started learning about the 1950s, and were assigned a project on the Vietnam War. Any information I would need would be available either in our textbook or on the Internet, but I thought it would be neat to get some first-hand information to include in my report as well.
I told my mother about my intent. “Grandpa wasn’t in the Vietnam War, though; he fought in Korea,” she replied. I hadn’t known, obviously; Grandpa hadn’t talked about his experiences to me, and, as I later learned, nor to my mother or grandmother. He had fought in a war, but besides that it was as though his years in the Army had disappeared.
The war was before my mother was born, before my grandparents had even met. By the time he became “Grandpa,” those years were far behind him. I didn’t come across this history until I found a few photographs and an ID card from his military years, stashed away in an old box in his study when I was in middle school.
I didn’t call him that week. There was no pressing reason to, and I was busy with schoolwork. Since I knew he wouldn’t be able to help me with my history project, I told myself that I would call him when I had finished the assignment.
The day he passed away was a Friday, and I’d spent that morning at school filming the last portion of my project on the Vietnam War. Since the project was complete, I knew that I would finally have time to call Grandpa over the weekend. Instead, when I saw my dad in the car to pick me up from school instead of my mom, I knew something was wrong. Only something important could pull him away from his desk before the end of the work day.
It had been nearly a month since the last time I’d talked to Grandpa, and immediately I realized what a mistake I had made. Because of a school project, I’d inadvertently missed out on the last opportunity to talk to my grandfather. Since then, I’ve realized that there’s no way to know whether what’s around today will be available tomorrow. I’ve tried to jump at every opportunity presented to me as it’s come along, knowing that it’s better to take a chance on something that may turn out to be irrelevant than to never experience it at all.
Still, given the opportunity to do so, I would travel back to March 29, 2007. I’d pick up the phone and call Grandpa just because he’s my Grandpa, and because I shouldn’t need a reason besides that. He would tell so many interesting stories if prompted to, and I would love to hear his voice and feel the smile on his face as he recounted one more to his eager granddaughter.
“Grandpa, what was it like to be in the war?”
“Well, hon, let me tell you…”